CLEARWATER, Fla. — Gabe Kapler oversaw the Dodgers’ farm system for three seasons, helping to guide the stars of last season’s National League champs to the big leagues. But as Kapler prepares for his first spring training as Phillies manager, it is a Dodgers utility player who is on his mind.
“Think about it like this,” Kapler said. “We don’t know who the next Chris Taylor is. We don’t know who our version of Chris Taylor is going to be. So we’d be foolish to not see if we can sort of get everyone thinking like that especially when we have talented, athletic dudes, young dudes like we do.”
Kapler is aiming to build a roster of versatile players who can be moved around the diamond, playing multiple positions. Imagine moving left fielder Rhys Hoskins to first base for a spell or shortstop J.P. Crawford taking grounders at third or perhaps seeing where else Cesar Hernandez can play besides second base. Right fielder Aaron Altherr will get playing time in center, and Kapler said Carlos Santana, a first baseman who signed a three-year, $60 million contract this winter, could see time in the outfield or even behind the plate in a pinch.
Almost every player will be asked to play at least two positions as the Phillies try to find playing time and watch their young roster develop. The Dodgers used Taylor at five positions last season and he registered more than 500 at-bats, a mark he likely would not have reached had he lacked the versatility to play multiple positions. Taylor is an example Kapler can use to prove that versatility increases chances for playing time as the manager implores his young team to buy in.
“I don’t think it’s a difficult sell to a player when you can sit them down and say, ‘Here’s how it’s been done with the Cubs, and here’s how it was done with the Dodgers, and here’s what these players accomplished at the end of the year,’ ” Kapler said. “And it’s not just a team goal of going to the playoffs or winning a World Series. It’s the individual goals and how some of those like on-base percentage numbers improve, how guys stay healthier over the course of time because they’re not worn down. I just don’t see that as being a difficult sell. I see that as being a pretty effective and direct sell.”
Versatility would allow the Phillies to be creative when building their roster this spring. They can carry an extra arm in the bullpen because their bench does not have to be bogged down. Hoskins can play first when Santana needs a rest, and Crawford or a utility infielder can handle third on Maikel Franco’s day off.
A likely bench will include a utility middle infielder, a backup catcher, and two extra outfielders. Of the five outfielders, only Hoskins would be limited to playing one outfield position. But his ability to play first makes up for that. That versatility then will help strengthen the bullpen, as the Phillies worked this offseason to shore up their relief corps to protect an uncertain starting rotation.
“The game’s evolved. The years of playing every inning and 162 games at the same position at the same spot in the lineup, those days are gone,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “We are fortunate we have a lot of young players that we want to play and we can give them playing time and we can give them rest when they need it to make sure they’re performing at their best. Communication will be key so guys know what the expectations are and when they’re going to play, but the manager and the coaching staff are committed to that. I’m excited for that. It’s a way to build depth in an organization and to win more games.”
The calls for versatility will not be limited this spring to the major leaguers. Kapler has already instructed the team’s player development staff to begin mandating that minor-league players be as versatile as possible before they arrive in the majors. Who knows, Kapler said, if premier prospect Scott Kingery can move around the diamond like Chris Taylor. But there’s only one way to find out. And spring training is the start.